Nigeria: Bolanle Awe and the Feminist Discourse

Since the Beijing Conference of 1995, the issue of women and their lot within the socio-economic, cultural and political context of any nation resurged with fresh political energy at a global level. This resurgence is critical to feminist and gender discourses everywhere. These discourses have often been polarised along so many ideological and racial lines bothering on conceptual and political issues and problems of patriarchal influence, the scope of gender disequilibrium across regions and geographies, the dynamics of required political action, and the possibility and implications of cross-cultural alliances and solidarity.

This last point is the occasion for the rich flowering of African feminism and its rich inputs into the woman question especially within the context of underdevelopment in Africa. For African feminists–or womanists as many would prefer, the issues of gender, patriarchal domination, patriliny, etc. resonates with some fervent energies that connect with the overall development of the continent rather than a sterile idea of liberation that has occupied western feminism. The fundamental idea central to African feminism is simple: the woman too can take her place in the development effort and match the men folks stride for stride in the collective attempt to upturn the development and governance fortunes of postcolonial Africa.

In Nigeria, the undeniable status of the advocate and pioneering historian of Nigerian women goes to Prof. Bolanle Awe for her unflinching faith and thorough excavation of the significance of women in Nigeria and their capacity to participate in the Nigerian national project. Mother, academic, historian and activist, Prof. Awe has proven her advocacy by insinuating herself solidly within the confines of the discourse on Nigeria and her greatness by participating and critiquing the many paths we have attempted to turn as a nation. And she is in good company–Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Gambo Sawaba, Margaret Ekpo, and others. With her, we are forced to confront the fact of women as a neglected force in the national project.

Mama Awe is presently 80 years old. But the advocacy for women began a long time ago. What seems unique in Bolanle Awe, for me, is her capacity to weave intellectual research into personal beliefs and national advocacy. What we can call her philosophy of social change is targeted at an attitudinal change in the nation beginning from the family upward to the whole of society. For her, a huge portion of that attitude change lies in the hand of the Nigerian women, and essentially in their attitudes to themselves. Prof. Awe calls for a redefinition of the private sphere as the place where a woman ought to begin her career rather than her attempt to surpass men in career pursuit outside the home. The home is the first significant crucible of womanhood before it becomes the framework for measuring the worth of a nation. To abandon the home, as most women now do, is to abandon what is most imperative in a woman’s responsibility.

To make the point more cogent, Prof. Awe developed over time a research dynamics that interjects historical analysis into the woman advocacy. Adrienne Rich calls this a “re-vision”–“the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction”. This re-vision becomes imperative because the writing of Nigerian history has not been fair to the achievement and contributions of women. In fact, one can say that the writing of history has usually been from the masculine perspective. Therefore, a deep rethinking and re-visioning of history gives the woman question in Nigeria a better push than mere feminist desire for liberation. And Bolanle Awe would agree with Gerda Lerner that, “Women’s history is the primary tool for women’s emancipation.” Thus, to pick up their true emancipatory potentials, there is a need to research the history of the African matriarchal context which makes a good woman first a good mother. The African matriarchal tradition lays the foundation for a dynamic trajectory that moves outward from the home to the society and the nation.

On the contrary, the first objective for the Nigerian woman is the imperative of family building as the first step in nation building. The task of a historian therefore, to which Prof. Awe dedicated herself, is to bring alive the essence of this matriarchal tradition, and the worthy contributions of many female characters, from “the dim recesses of Nigerian history” into the urgent and present imperative of building a national project that has been subject of masculine foibles. Bolanle Awe’s intellectual outputs represents a unique angle to the challenge of nursing the national project back to life in the bid to create a developmental Nigerian state. And her singular contribution is this: Motherhood is the single most neglected angle to the national question in Nigeria. There is therefore the need to interrogate the historical contributions of the mothers as the requisite sacrifice in the healing of the nation.

The ideas of development and nation building have often been cast in masculine terms as requiring only the ingenuity of men as politicians. The evidence of history controverts such unilinear trajectory. Rather, what is historically reasonable to say is that development is not gendered; all hands are required on the development deck in Nigeria. Thus, the trajectory of history which emancipates the Nigerian women by providing them with evidence that would facilitate attitudinal change also emancipates the nation by suggesting some ways out of our national conundrum.

Dr Olaopa, a permanent secretary, wrote from Abuja

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